A new fuel cell being developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is set to take households a giant step closer to energy independence. MIT researchers envision an integrated system consisting of a solar installation and a fuel cell. During the day, the solar array produces electricity to power the household, and to charge batteries including electric vehicle batteries. At night, the system would shift to the fuel cell, which would produce additional electricity as well as clean drinking water.
The key is reducing the cost of fuel cells, which right now are expensive partly due to the use of platinum as a critical component. That’s where the new research comes in. At the recent 240th national meeting of the American Chemical Society, the MIT team described a powerful new catalyst that could help make the solar-fuel cell integrated system more affordable.
The MIT Fuel Cell Breakthrough
In the integrated solar and fuel cell system, solar energy would provide electricity to run an electrolyzer (a device that breaks down plain water into hydrogen and oxygen). It requires a catalyst to jumpstart the reaction, and until now the catalysts of choice have been based on platinum, which aside from being expensive involves the use of potentially toxic chemicals. MIT’s new catalyst requires no toxic chemicals and has the advantage of boosting oxygen production 200-fold. To complete the cycle, at night when the solar array ceases operation, the stored hydrogen and oxygen produce electricity in the fuel cell, and the byproduct of this reaction is potable water.
The Road to Mass Market Fuel Cells
Just about any energy source could be used to run the electrolyzer. The MIT ideal seems to be renewable energy generated onsite, but buildings that have no such options could rely on central renewable-energy power stations (which requires an improved grid, but that’s another story). Another low cost route is being explored by the the U.S. Navy, which is developing microbial fuel cells that operate through the digestive exertions of microrganisms that can feed on ambient nutrients in mud or seawater. Aside from MIT’s research, other institutions are also working toward fuel cells that eschew platinum in favor of lower cost materials, one example being a ceramic-based fuel cell under development at Georgia Tech.
Image: Castle by Jim Linwood on flickr.com.
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.